Finding room for ethics
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Finding room for ethics

Program helps students build framework for decision-making

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A recent FASPE delegation. Thorin Tritter is at the far right, in the second row from the top.

When Thorin Tritter of Tenafly brings graduate students to Auschwitz, he wants them to learn more than just historical facts about the Shoah.

Tritter, the managing director of Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, wants to change their lives.

Each year, FASPE takes dozens of students in medicine, journalism, law, and seminary programs to Poland and Berlin for 12 days to talk about the history of their professions during the Holocaust.

“We discuss what Nazi doctors, Nazi lawyers, and German religious leaders were doing during that terrible time,” said Tritter, a member of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. “These people had ethical lapses that led to the Holocaust – everyone can take lessons from that. Jews often think we need to remember the Holocaust just for ourselves, but it’s a lesson for everybody.”

Run in collaboration with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust – FASPE, created in 2009, focuses on teaching these lessons to future professionals.

“We show them not just the most egregious things, but things like lawyers creating, or not challenging, laws that enabled the Holocaust to happen; or journalists who didn’t report on it; or doctors who selected which people would be sent to the gas chamber,” Tritter said.

As a professional, “You have a huge responsibility,” he continued. “Here are people who used that responsibility for a horrible end. We want to encourage the students to think about the power of their professions and the repercussions of their decisions. We want to make them more aware of facing ethical issues on a daily basis.”

FASPE is not only about stopping the next genocide; it’s also about “much more mundane matters,” Tritter said. For example, the program prompts law and medical students to explore the tension between their responsibility to clients and to society at large.

“These can be very small issues that come up on a daily basis, but they are issues students should be thinking about,” Tritter said. “One of our seminary students wrote a paper that was spot on, saying that ethics takes practice, like anything else. If you practice thinking about ethical deliberation and behavior on the small things, when you’re confronted with more serious issues, you will be better prepared to take an ethical position. It makes [students] aware that ethical issues are on their plate all the time.”

He noted that “in many cases, ethics is about individuals setting up a framework in their mind about what they’re willing to do and not willing to do, where to draw the lines. You need to build the framework in advance or you won’t be ready to use it.”

Tritter said he received some 850 applications for the 57 fellowship positions offered this summer. In order to be considered, students – Jewish and non-Jewish, from all over the country – write essays on what they hope to learn from the program and submit letters of recommendation. If they are chosen, their participation in the program is fully subsidized. Since the program began, 211 students have been selected as fellows.

FASPE chooses between 10 and 15 students in each discipline, pairing the groups for trips: Journalism and law students travel together, while seminarians and medical students are teamed up for a separate trip. The trips are led by faculty members from different universities who travel to Europe with the students to conduct seminars for the different professional groups.

Tritter ““ who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in American history and taught in the history department at Princeton for six years ““ leads some of the historical sessions. He said that one of the FASPE’s strengths is “the power of place. Going there creates a stronger response. It’s different than holding the same seminars in classrooms.”

Participants are asked to complete surveys both before and after each trip, with students asked how well they are prepared to face ethical dilemmas. Overwhelmingly, they say they feel better prepared after participating in the program.

“We ask students how much time over the previous year or two they have spent talking about professional ethics in class or outside and it’s a shockingly small amount,” Tritter said. “They get more time from 12 days focused on ethics than they do during the previous two years.”

Students also are asked to write something after they return, connecting a contemporary ethical issue with something discussed during the program.

“We make it due a few months after the trip ends, so students will come back to thinking about what the trip was like,” Tritter said. “It’s a way to keep them involved. We strongly believe that it’s not just 12 days but the beginning of a relationship with these students.” FASPE also hosts an annual reunion for all participants.

Tritter said that when he joined FASPE in 2011, he was skeptical when museum director David Marwell told that year’s participants that he wanted the trip to be “a life-changing experience.” Now, he said ““ based on responses from the students ““ he has come to believe that the description was accurate.

“The formal activities of the program are just part of it,” he said, noting that students spend as much time in informal discussions with other participants, whether at meals or “just walking around. They continue the discussion.” Through the program, students are introduced to likeminded peers who are equally interested in ethical discussions.

While the program focuses on contemporary ethics, “it is another way, and another reason, to remember the Holocaust,” Tritter said. “Survivors come to talk to the students. As this population ages, there are fewer ways to remember and fewer connections. This is another way to make the Holocaust something that resonates.”

Before his work with FASPE, Tritter was a guide for Big Onion Walking tours, a job he started while still a student at Columbia.

“It was a great way to get out of the classroom and use the city streets to connect to our larger history,” he said.

Now, as a member of the speakers program at the New York Council on the Humanities, he visits community organizations to speak about topics such as the Lower East Side ““ a lecture he recently delivered at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

More information about FASPE is at www.faspe.info.

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